Canon Law

Reverend Paul Counce explaining the nuances of Canon 1055 of the Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law, which outlines the definition of marriage. (Credit: Ben Wallace)
Reverend Paul Counce explaining the nuances of Canon 1055 of the Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law, which outlines the definition of marriage. (Credit: Ben Wallace)
A page from the Code of Canon Law, written in Latin on one side and English (or the language of the country) on the other. (Credit: Ben Wallace)
A page from the Code of Canon Law, written in Latin on one side and English (or the language of the country) on the other. (Credit: Ben Wallace)

By Ben Wallace | LSU Student

Because of the hierarchical power structure in the Roman Catholic Church, change occurs about as fast as tectonic uplift. But the spark of a sex scandal a decade ago exposed a legal system which now plays an increasingly larger role in solving church disputes.

Canonical law, the internal ordinances—called canons—governing the Roman Catholic Church, has been around in some form for about a millennium. Until recently, it has stayed mostly below the faithful's radar.

"Canon lawyers mostly deal with marriage annulment cases, but in the past 10 or 15 years, there has been more types of disputes that canonical trials adjudicate," said the Very Reverend Paul Counce, pastor at Cathedral of St. Joseph in Baton Rouge, a canon lawyer and former president of the Canon Law Society of America.

Some of those canonical disputes include parents upset by school admission policies, a priest resisting transfer to another parish and even parishioners barring musical performances, which were not liturgical during church services, according to a recent Associated Press story.

Ever since the publicizing of hidden sexual abuse scandals in the archdiocese of Boston, some Catholics have felt the need to use other avenues besides the highest-ranking cleric to resolve church related issues. Enter canon lawyers and ecclesiastical adjudication.

"Some dioceses have struggled with this because the bishops did not send out the bad guys," said Counce. "But our (current) bishops have always investigated those kinds of things immediately, so Louisiana haven't had the types of problems (today that) have existed elsewhere in the country."

"Canon law is issue driven, and a canon lawyer is going to do the work of the church based upon its needs. Here in Baton Rouge, it's divorce."

Since the Catholic Church does not permit divorce, the marriage must be deemed to have never really happened, or annulled, based upon the church's definition of marriage, if one or both parties in the marriage wish to re-marry within the church.

"When someone petitions for annulment, they are saying, 'Please evaluate my failed marriage.' Almost always, we discover some flaws and then it's done," said Counce, who said about 95 percent of cases are judged affirmatively.

"Marriage isn't impossible, it's pretty matter of fact," said Counce.

In 2011, some 120 cases were annulled. Only in three cases, was the decision negative, said Counce, adding that the year before not a single marriage annulment petition was denied.

"Many Americans marry to be happy and reserve the right to get out if they are not," said Counce.

About 99.9 percent of cases before the Diocese of Baton Rouge tribunal involve marriage annulments, he said.

"In the past 23 years, there have been zero penalty cases, zero property cases and two unfair employment practice cases in our diocese."

Once affirmed in the local parish, the case must also be affirmed by the appeals tribunal, which for the seven Louisiana Catholic dioceses sits in New Orleans.

"If it can't be approved there, it would be sent to Rome," said Counce.

A canon lawyer is not required to be an ordained priest. Lay canon lawyers, which can early up to $80,000 annually and charge between $75 and $100 per hour for a routine annulment case, represent about half of canon lawyers nationwide, said Counce, adding that a college degree in religious studies would be necessary for lay people in addition to the canon law degree.

Priests usually end up "working for almost nothing," said Counce, since he and other priests are mostly salaried by the church.

Once one party files a annulment petition, it may take from nine months to a year for a case to be resolved.

During case proceedings, canon lawyers will gather documents, call witnesses and hand out questionnaires to relevant parties, with answers given under oath.

Interestingly, in annulment cases, the formerly married couples never meet face to face in a courtroom. The church only needs one party present to grant an annulment, although requests are always sent for both parties, said Counce.

"They're like subpoenas," said the Reverend Jamin David, parochial vicar at St. Aloysius Church in Baton Rouge, also a canon lawyer. But the church has no authoritative power to force a person to attend proceedings.

"I was sent by Bishop Muench to deal with marital law all the time," said David, a May 2011 graduate of Catholic University of America's canonical licentiate program.

David said in the academic setting he noticed many fellow licentiate candidates were sent for reasons other than marital law.

Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the right of a religion to govern its own internal processes in a case involving a Lutheran woman's firing following a disability leave of absence. That means the state is not to interfere with canon law, said Counce.

"Canon law is not imposed by the state or the government, so outside of the church, it's probably more of a curiosity that anything else," said Counce.

Canonical law's foundation lies in a list of 1,752 canons, originally published in 1917 under Pope X and most recently updated in 1999. They cover everything from marital law to church structures to general norms that operate the church.

Counce said there are about 1,400 canon lawyers in America, despite only one school in the United States (Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.) offering the juris canonici licensia, required to practice canon law.